Life Reimagined

Capturing Family Stories, Part 1: My Father and Me

Why create a vivid, multimedia history for your loved ones? Simple: knowing who your family is can teach you who you are

My dad surrounded by flashbulbs in the early 1950s.

At 80, my father was still running a photography studio, seemingly in good health. But he’d suffered a heart attack years before and hadn’t entirely quit smoking.

It was time.

I knew my father wouldn’t be around indefinitely. And when he was gone, his stories would disappear. The thought filled me with regret. Though I’d heard his stories many times, as a kid I couldn’t relate, and so I didn’t remember them very well.

As an adult, though, I didn’t want to lose a single detail about his brother Stafford, a World War II pilot who was shot down in the Pacific, or how my father got his start as a newspaper reporter and how he trained pigeons to send film back to the office.

But how should I capture my father’s history? I couldn’t say, “Hey Dad, better get your stories written down before it’s too late.” My work as an editor for a computer magazine suggested the solution: Why not create a family history book?

My Grandfather Looked Like a Frog

I asked members of my immediate family to write short memoirs, with stories about their childhood, their weddings, children, and such. I requested photos, too. This way, not only would I get my father’s stories, I’d hear from my mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts, even my older nieces and nephews. Because the project would include contributions from many family members, my true motive—getting my father’s stories down for posterity while it was still possible—wasn’t so obvious. My family was eager to participate. As their self-portraits trickled in, I read them carefully learning things I’d never have known otherwise. I realized what a good writer my father was; his anecdotes were gently humorous and full of detail.

“I’m not really sure how Dad met Mom, but I did hear stories about their courtship,” he wrote of my grandparents. “Mom was living in a two-story house in Roanoke, Virginia with her mother, father, and her sister, Della. Dad came courting, Aunt Della told us, dressed in tight pants and a Norfolk-style coat—'He looked like a frog,' she cracked—and riding a tall bicycle with a metal clip on his trouser leg. They were married in 1906 by just walking to the preacher’s house one day.”

I re-read another anecdote, over and over—it inspired me to persevere in going after something I want, even if the odds are against me. “When I graduated from Roanoke College in 1933, there were no jobs,” my father wrote. “That year marked the low spot in the Depression. I applied everywhere but I really wanted to be a reporter at the Roanoke Times. Payday was Monday about 2 p.m., and I was there every Monday to remind them I still wanted a job. I did this for about eight months; they hired me in July 1934 at $12 a week.”

Producing the family history book was a bigger undertaking than I’d imagined: typing up handwritten notes sent to me by computerless relatives, scanning dozens of photos

I finished the book and distributed copies. A year later, Dad was gone.

Last Words

When my father died, sharing our grief publicly seemed unimaginable. No one felt up to giving a eulogy. And so I lay awake one night, dissatisfied with the planned memorial. My father had spent his entire career capturing the important moments in other people’s lives. How could there be a service without stories about him? Then I remembered our DIY family history book.

I grabbed a yellow highlighter and re-read my father’s chapter, marking excerpts to share. I highlighted funny stories my mother and sisters told aboutmy father. The mourners listened attentively, but were hesitant to laugh. Maybe it seemed disrespectful to do so, but I felt a tension rising until someone broke the ice. Afte that, the laughter came, along with the tears.

Stories that Still Astonish A Project for Now

Each of us has stories to tell—how we overcame adversity, met our life partners, raised our children. Our stories measure our lives. When we preserve them, our stories become our legacy. My family’s history book has provided comfort many times. When my grandmother died at 100, I read some of her stories at the funeral. On special anniversaries and birthdays, I often re-read chapters of the book, transported by evocative details I would otherwise never have known.

Do it Sooner Than Later

If you’ve ever thought of capturing the stories of your loved ones, whether it’s in print, audio, or video, my advice is: Do it now. Being too late packs quite a sting. About a month ago, I attended the memorial of a friend, Marie, who died in her mid 80s. During the service, a woman showed the headdress Marie had made to go with the woman’s wedding gown. “Marie had so many great stories to tell,” she said, sadly. “I wish someone had gotten them down.”

San Francisco writer James A. Martin is developing a personal documentary business.

Read Part 2 of Capturing Family Stories

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